The year of the dragon

           (Detail from painting exhibited at Japan Supernatural, Art Gallery of NSW, November 2019)

For the  past four weeks I’ve been living in a hotel in Seoul in South Korea.  I say living because although technically I’ve been on holiday, my time in the country hasn’t felt like a holiday, it’s felt like life, like how I live my life on a day to day basis wherever I am.  What is different of course, is that I’m alone in the country and embedded in a non-English speaking culture and society experiencing a bombardment of new and diverse impressions.   And as I wrote somewhere a while ago, for me it’s not so much about time or locale, its more about state.  State of being that is.

Three out of the 34 television channels available on the TV in my hotel room feature English-speaking programs, and two of those are CNN and the BBC.  When coverage of the Hamas war and the American presidential race starts to wear thin, I find myself channel-surfing through a kaleidoscope of colour and entertainment, which at times is mesmerising, especially for someone who doesn’t haven’t a television in their home.

I’ve watched several movies, all in Korean and without English subtitles, about death and the afterlife, and ghosts.  And what always strikes me is how comfortable people here are with this genre and in particular with the afterlife and the understanding and belief that after physical death our lives and existence continues in a different way.  This leads me to the topic of Shamanism, which though sometimes frowned upon and considered something of a relic of the past, is nonetheless highly respected, with most Shamans being women (the term is ‘mudang’).  Among other duties, Shamans interact with spirits in the spirit world usually providing assistance to help with their transition into the afterlife.

I’m writing about this because at the time I was conducting research for my thesis, and was completing preparatory field work, I spoke about some of the interactions I experienced with my deceased husband with an Anglican nun, who told me in no uncertain terms that such things were considered evil by Sydney churches, and that a person who talked about such things would be considered possessed.  When I spoke about these things with the guide from the Museum of Shamanism I visited, the reaction was completely different; he smiled knowingly, and nodded.  Why do you have to travel a thousand miles to be understood?

At core of course is a shared belief in the afterlife, and in our ongoing existence of life beyond this earthly life. In reflecting on my association with South Korea, this being my second trip, I finally came to understand why the country resonates with me, why it calls to me so persistently; it’s the visibility of the dead in everyday society.  This isn’t just evidenced by the presence of Shamans and Shamanism in Korean society, the dead are everywhere, in myths and songs, in popular K-dramas and in historical plays and dramas enacted before audiences on stages in theatre house.

Their sociological and psychospiritual visibility is precisely because of the attitudes of the living and no wonder I feel so at home in this foreign culture.  It is precisely because of this visibility, this shared understanding and acceptance of our mortality and immortality, and the hope that it brings.  What about this is so difficult to understand, and why are the dead by their presence in our lives so often feared, misunderstood or reviled?  When we face the dead, ghosts, or spirits, we are really only looking at reflections of ourselves.

Michele T Knight Written by:

Dr Michele Knight is a Social Worker, Social Scientist, researcher and independent scholar. Her interest and research in the end-of-life has its origin in the lived experiences of her own bereavements, her near-death and shared-death events, the returning deceased and attitudinal responses to those experiences. Since 2006, she has been extensively involved in community development, support and advocacy in both a professional and community services/voluntary capacity in the areas of bereavement and grief, hospital pastoral care, and academic lecturing/tutoring. Her PhD, Ways of Being: The alchemy of bereavement and communique, explores the lived experience of bereavement, grief, spirituality and unsought encounters with the returning deceased.

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